BOSTON -- The opening tip hopped in high, slow arcs as Rajon Rondo ran back to meet the ball. He watched it bounce as he settled underneath it. Then he let it bounce off his head.
And that was the story of this game, in hindsight, as he turned to dribble up-court. He was both aggressive and relaxed. He was explosive yet comfortable. There is no player in the league quite like Rondo, who plays with the unpredictable flair of a long-ago time, and his decisive triple-double began with the ball bouncing off his head.
"When I'm healthy," he said after the Celtics' 91-72 clobbering of the Heat, "I feel we can probably beat anybody."
On a Sunday afternoon, when Rondo had 16 points (on 7-of-13 shooting), 14 assists (with two turnovers) and 11 rebounds for his fifth triple-double of the season, it recalled the events of last May, when the Celtics believed they could have and should have upset the favored Heat until Rondo's left elbow was hyperextended in Game 3 of their second-round series. This was his first healthy game against them here since that painful night 11 months ago, and he was doing what he had wanted to do in that lost series. He was pushing the ball relentlessly and waving his teammates alongside him. He was talking on defense and attacking always. In a game of All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers, he was once again the best player on the floor.
"We wanted to push the pace, get him the ball as much as possible," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce (23 points). "We feel like with that matchup we can pretty much exploit Rondo because he always plays so well versus Miami. So we wanted him to push the pace, try to get to the rim, and when he does that it really frees up things for the rest of us."
For perspective, consider the impact of J.J. Barea on the NBA Finals last year, when he became a starter in Game 4 and his drives through Miami's defense were credited with earning three straight victories and the championship for Dallas. Rondo is the equivalent of Barea to the third power. Over the years, he has been able to beat whichever point guard has been paired alongside LeBron James -- whether it was Mo Williams in Cleveland, or Mario Chalmers and rookie Norris Cole here Sunday -- and destroy the engine of the defense like a ball bearing set loose in the bowels of a Ferrari.
The Celtics exacerbated Rondo's impact by sending his teammates to the basket on weakside and baseline delays. In the past, they've spaced the floor around him, but against the aggressively pursuing defenders of Miami they decided to trigger Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley to cut backdoor so that they may finish the layups created for them by Rondo. Bradley was especially effective because he has the bullish strength to finish inside. "The league is going to figure that out," predicted Boston coach Doc Rivers.
Rondo's impact on the Celtics was overwhelming. When he wasn't breaking down the defense, his teammates were routinely unable to finish around the basket. When the ball was passed conventionally from one side to the other before finding its way under the basket, Garnett, Pierce and other Celtics found themselves unable to convert layups or dunks against the Heat's fast-collapsing defenders. Boston was a preposterous 5-of-14 from the paint at halftime (as opposed to 10-of-19 further away from the basket), and most of those missed gimmes were by Celtics other than Rondo. Their best hope for making a layup was to wait for Rondo to hand-deliver an open look from mid-air as he spread-eagled through a defense that can shut down everyone except for the best dribble-penetrators.
Rondo strung together seven outstanding possessions in the first quarter to open up a fast 11-point lead. He collected three straight rebounds at either end. He finished back-to-back runners off the glass in transition. He ball-faked Joel Anthony in the lane before creating an open corner three for Pierce, he squeezed a bounce pass off the dribble to Pierce under the basket in between two defenders, and most audaciously of all, he knocked down a deep three, as if shooting has never been a concern for him. And all that amounted to was the prologue.
In the third quarter, he turned a five-point Boston lead into an 80-56 advantage. Rondo's eight assists in that period were twice as many as anyone from Miami managed throughout the game. (LeBron had zero.) On successive possessions Rondo made a mid-range jumper, then went up to fake another jump shot as Garnett back-doored behind the demoralized Heat defenders for an uncontested layup from his point guard. Then there was a 60-foot lob to Sasha Pavlovic and a spinning, scooping, back-handed layup down the throat to end the quarter and ensure Miami of its seventh loss in 10 road games.
The Heat are 16-12 on the road. While they were enabling Boston to shoot 51.8 percent overall through three quarters, the Heat were settling passively for jump shots. In that third quarter, Miamians not named LeBron went 1-for-11, though James himself was rarely aggressive while going 1-for-2 from the foul line in 35 minutes.
The Celtics are beginning to believe in themselves, thanks to their improved second-half conditioning, Garnett's move to center, the continued production of Brandon Bass (10 rebounds and 16 points on five field-goal attempts) and the emergence of Bradley (13 points), who has been so impressive defensively that Rivers wasn't prepared to guarantee Ray Allen's return to the starting lineup once he recovers from his sore ankle.
Of course Allen will start; let's not be silly. And the Celtics are going to need to keep building on their recent successes on the boards before they can believe in themselves as potential title contenders.
But they're trending in the right direction, along a path that Miami would just as soon avoid. It's all thanks to the transformative powers of 6-foot-1 Rondo. Never did he appear to be out of control, even as he burst past whoever tried to stop him. He made the game look easy and fun. As soon as he headed the ball to himself, he had it made.